A guide to prairie fashion in 2017

By in Culture

With a summer of Canada 150 celebrations focused around the hubs of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, you might find that the Prairies — and Saskatchewan in particular — are lacking in the same gravitas of cultural heritage and expression.

With these big events happening around us, it might seem that we are passive consumers of culture. Moreover, it may feel like we — as a prairie people — are being fed a cultural narrative that doesn’t wholly apply to us. This feeling, however, needn’t be the case at all.

A rich and distinct collection of prairie art and culture has been refined by generations of Indigenous peoples and newcomers alike — with the fiddle music of the Métis, the ballads of Joni Mitchell, the political power of Buffy Sainte-Marie, the intense isolation of a Sinclair Ross story and the longing pride of Margaret Laurence.

Prairie culture, however, has never translated into an obvious aesthetic of apparel. While there are distinct prairie apparels like the North West Mounted Police red serge and the traditional dress worn during powwow, these aren’t appropriate for everyone to wear. This leaves the question, what can be seen as a distinctly prairie fashion?

There are a number of distinct prairie brands, even if they are few and far between. Being so far away from the highend retail of Madison Avenue allows prairie brands to carve their own local markets.

Such Saskatchewan brands include Neechie Gear, Hillberg & Berk and Hardpressed. All of these brands create a distinct of apparel for the region, with Neechie and Hardpressed incorporating provincial and regional symbolism on base clothing to increase their appeal to local markets. Likewise, Hillberg & Berk incorporates local material into their jewelry creation. With this local focus, all three companies hold a place in prairie fashion and each has built a brand that goes beyond the Palliser Triangle.

Aside from specific brands, there is provincial flavour to consider when thinking about prairie fashion. In Alberta, it would seem that the cowboy hat is an invitation to the circle, with every politician and their dog gearing up with a hat for events such as the Calgary Stampede. Belt buckles fit with this image of the Albertan as well.

It is important that prairie fashion be differentiated from similar fashion styles. For example, nothing is overly unique about the denim jacket, even when added to a pair of blue jeans to make the ubiquitous Canadian tuxedo. Only when branded with particular symbols does denim become truly unique and prairie-esque.

Even the typical aesthetic ideal of the prairie farmer is no more identifiable with the Canadian Prairies than it is with the American West — or even the Midwest or rural Ontario. For that matter, if not for the recollecting of localized past goods, the prairie hipster would not look so different from someone in Ontario or British Columbia.

The localized flair can even be seen in apparel that comes from companies that don’t focus solely on clothing. This is perhaps most famously seen with the Hudson’s Bay Company or promotional items from organizations like the United Grain Growers or even a local Credit Union. These symbols spread through prairie towns, garage sales and eventually thrift stores, where finally, they can be reconstructed as hip. What makes them hip cannot be quantified, but certainly, the incorporation of the Prairie landscape aids in the reintroduction and success of such items.

Together, both the businesses of local entrepreneurs and the promotional materials of non-apparel companies have made their items into features of prairie fashion. The mixing of localized prairie symbols with ubiquitous clothing basics has made way for the emergence of a cohesive, prairie- esque style.

Brent Kobes

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor